The Bigger Picture

Spring is now in full swing, which means that within a few months monarch butterflies will be visiting your garden.

For a long time, these beautiful, fragile creatures were at the center of one of the great mysteries of science.

Every fall, Midwesterners watch the monarchs fly south.  Every spring they return.  Where do they hang out during the winter?   An entomologist named Fred Urquhart devoted most of his life to answering that question.

Urquhart lived before today’s technological revolution that could no doubt create miniaturized “Butterfly Cams.”  Instead, he and his colleagues had to tag, by hand, tens of thousands of monarchs so they could track their movements.

What Urquhart discovered is that monarchs east the Rocky Mountains fly all the way to Mexico for the winter.

The butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains, on the other hand, fly to wintering sites along the Pacific Ocean.

Nobody knows how they know how to do this.

What’s amazing is that scientists have taken butterflies from the West Coast and brought them here to the Midwest. They fly right to Mexico.  When they take butterflies from our part of the country and put them in Utah, they fly to the Pacific Ocean.

So when you switch the butterflies, they automatically switch overwintering sites.  No one knows how they do that, either.

Thirty-eight years into his research, Fred Urquhart finally found what he was looking for:  a site in Mexico where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter clinging to trees.

Today we know of 20 such sites.  One of them is pictured above.

Towards the end of winter, the butterflies begin their annual northward return trip.  They only fly a few hundred miles, lay their eggs, and die.  Their children continue the trip north.

Then another generation goes a few hundred miles.  Then a fourth generation goes the rest of the way.

So when you see a monarch butterfly this summer, it’s quite likely the great-grandchild of one of the monarchs that was in your garden last summer.

It takes at least four generations of monarch butterflies to complete the migration across North America.  This is probably why so many butterflies spend so much time browsing on

Our mission is a bit like the migratory mission of monarch butterflies.  It cannot be completed within our lifetimes.

By God’s grace, we can all see evidence of the extending of God’s reign.  But God alone knows the timetable for the ultimate healing of this broken world.

In the words of Father Oscar Romero of El Salvador:  “We are workers, not master builders.  Ministers, not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future not our own.”

The God who’s in charge of tomorrow knows where all of our efforts – and the efforts of succeeding generations – will ultimately take us.

Our call, in the meantime, is to play small but crucial parts in a very long story.

In other words, we get to fly one leg of the journey.

And to do that really well today.

— Authored by Glenn McDonald

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